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Sticking to the Union

In response to:

Who's Sticking to the Union? from the February 18, 1999 issue

To the Editors:

It is sad news for union supporters that Andrew Hacker reports in his review [“Who’s Sticking to the Union?” NYR, February 18]. In 1997, the latest complete count, the proportion of employed Americans who belong to unions, he tells us, fell to the lowest in sixty-one years. The highest was 35.5 percent in 1945, which dropped to a low of 14.1 percent in 1997. Apart from those employed in the public sector only one in ten workers in the country belonged to a union.

To regain their record high of 1945, unions would have to recruit 15 million new members, but continued losses have severely cut back the small gains they have made. The gains have been made largely in the middle class rather than in the traditional working class by organizing well-paid professionals such as athletes, airline pilots, and physicians. To add reputable associations as well as members, unions have moved into universities beyond the level of janitors, waiters, cooks, technicians, and clerical employees in attempts to unionize not only faculties but graduate students as well.

So far recognition of graduate student unions has been limited to public institutions. Under state laws (which usually prohibit strikes) ten public university systems now allow graduate students to form unions. Private universities, on the other hand, have consistently maintained that graduate students serving as teaching and research assistants in connection with their programs are primarily students and not employees under federal law. In a series of decisions beginning in 1972 the National Labor Relations Board has strongly supported this view, declaring in 1977 that “collective bargaining is not adaptable to the structure of higher education” and that “there exists a grave danger that it may unduly infringe upon traditional academic freedoms,” especially free speech, which “would become as bargainable as wages.” Challenges continue, however, and we now await the board’s decision on another appeal, one regarding recognition of a student union at Yale University.

Mr. Hacker’s account of the Yale controversy favors the union’s claims and falls short of fullness and comprehension of the university position. Two locals of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (HERE) are already established on the campus, legitimately representing thousands of university employees of various categories. In 1994 the AFL-CIO set out to organize a third local of HERE consisting of graduate students and organized those of the total of 2,000 willing to cooperate as “employees.” Union resources have been poured into this effort and continue to be. They include the salaries of graduate students who work as union organizers, campaign funds amounting to $90,000 in 1997, and perhaps more substantial amounts in attorneys’ fees.

Legal expenses were multiplied by unfair labor practice charges filed by the Graduate Employees and Student Organization (GESO). The charges grew out of the “grade strike” by GESO members who withheld grades at the end of the fall term and thus, in effect, held the records of undergraduates hostage in their attempt to force university recognition of union status. The strike collapsed when they were informed that they could not be reappointed if it continued. Although a complaint was issued against Yale by the NLRB’s General Counsel based on GESO’s charges, it was dismissed by the administrative law judge because the tactics used by the students in the “grade strike” were not protected by federal law. Whereupon union attorneys appealed the dismissal to the NLRB, whose decision we still await.

If the union wins the appeal and subsequently succeeds in obtaining recognition from Yale, it would then proceed to the bargaining table to negotiate traditional issues involving employees: wages, working conditions, sick leave, health care. But how would these traditional issues of employees be interpreted in an academic setting? Can issues surrounding graduate students’ studies to become scholars and teachers be separated from issues of their activities as teaching assistants? Yale University, like its peer institutions, provides generous support packages to its graduate students. These include tuition fellowships (now $21,760 per year) for at least four years, annual stipends of up to $16,750 to help with living expenses, and numerous other stipends and services such as professionals to help in their search for jobs. The tight job market is the main problem facing present-day graduate students, one where unions are no help. These controversies and problems are real and important, but I must leave them here and turn to what seems to me the vital issue for academic life, welfare, and the future that unions may bring about.

The key word is the e-word—“employees” or “employers.” That usage threatens a disastrous revolution in basic relations between students and faculty in the training of professional scholars and academics of the future. It transforms trainee into hireling and trainer into manager or boss for employers. Few faculty members with any experience in graduate training would willingly accept that change. I can only report the experience of one long academic career of some forty years, the last thirty of which were devoted largely or entirely to graduate students.

In those thirty years, fifteen at Johns Hopkins, then fifteen at Yale, I had some remarkable students. Forty of them published their dissertations in history, and they and others have by now published more than a hundred volumes, many of them winners of awards, including three Pulitzer Prizes. Relationships formed in those years by no means ended with the degree earned or the job obtained. They were too close and durable for that, and many of them have remained very much alive, some for a half-century or more.

The terms “teacher or instructor” never seemed satisfactory to me for the role played. I think the old Greeks came closer with their word “mentor”—trusted counselor, guide, and friend. At any rate to substitute the word “employer” or “manager” for any of them remains to me unthinkable and heedlessly destructive.

C. Vann Woodward
Sterling Professor of History Emeritus
Yale University

Andrew Hacker replies:

I wish I could allay Professor Woodward’s apprehensions over unions for teaching assistants. Thus far, faculty members at top research centers like the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin have not reported that collective bargaining inhibits their mentoring of graduate students. Nor, I might add, have I found that a faculty union prevents amiable relations among professors and administrators at my own college.

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